Suffolk's Coat of Arms
Suffolk's Coat of Arms

Character Information
Suffolk has very few lines early in the play. He sides with Somerset in the quarrel against York. Usually he is seen with Somerset when he appears. Late in the play he takes Margaret hostage. Struck with her beauty he chooses to woo her to become the King’s wife. He is interested in using her as a mistress, and as a manipulating force on the King. This plan comes into fruition in 2 Henry VI.

Historical information

The following information is quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by John Watts.

Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450), administrator and magnate, was the second son of Michael de la Pole, second earl of Suffolk (1367/8–1415), and Katherine Stafford (d. 1419).

Early life and war service

Like many men of his time, and like many a second son, William de la Pole began his career as a soldier in France. He was born at Cotton, Suffolk, on 16 October 1396, and was allegedly baptized during a fearsome gale, but his activities thereafter are unrecorded, until his service in Henry V's campaign of 1415, a campaign that was to have an unexpected and dramatic outcome for him. De la Pole's father died at the siege of Harfleur, where he himself was wounded, and a few weeks later, on 25 October, his elder brother, also Michael de la Pole [see under Pole, Michael de la], hastily elevated to his father's earldom, fell at the battle of Agincourt. So it was that, a little after his nineteenth birthday, William became earl of Suffolk. With more than one dowager to support from his patrimony, and the rest in wardship for the time being, the obvious course for the young earl to take was to return to France, and he did so in the expedition of August 1417. He was to remain overseas for thirteen years, serving in a variety of different roles and theatres.

During 1418 Suffolk was mainly employed in the conquest of the Cotentin peninsula, joining Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, at the reduction of Cherbourg. By the end of the year he was with the king at the siege of Rouen, and on 19 May 1419 he was given his first significant command, as admiral of Normandy. The remainder of that year saw him appointed to captaincies on the frontier with Brittany (Pontorson, Avranches) and at Mantes, but his activities before he joined the king at the siege of Melun in the autumn of 1420 are unknown. When Henry returned to England with his Valois bride, he left Suffolk in France, appointing him a conservator of the truce with Brittany in February 1421. On 3 May that year the earl became a knight of the Garter and in the autumn the returning king made him warden of the lower marches of Normandy.

In the years after Henry's death Suffolk was one of the leading lieutenants of the regent, John, duke of Bedford, frequently entrusted with area commands and also diplomatic missions, such as the important embassy of 1425, sent to the Low Countries to repair the damage caused by Gloucester's invasion of Hainault. It seems unlikely that the earl was a particularly distinguished general: most of the campaigns in which he was active were directed by others, often the earls of Salisbury and Warwick; and much of the work of his admiralty and captaincies was carried out by underlings. Even so, Suffolk put in a respectable performance throughout the 1420s, and his commitment to the war effort was well rewarded. Under Henry V, Suffolk received grants in the Cotentin, where he had been most active, and some time between August 1424 and July 1425, perhaps as a reward for his part in the Ivry–Verneuil campaign, he was given the lands and title of count of Dreux.

The turning point in Suffolk's military career came in the summer of 1428, when, after a series of rather ineffectual actions along the southern edges of the pays de conquête, he joined in the siege of Orléans. As a result of Jeanne d'Arc's intervention in May 1429, the English forces were disastrously split up, and Suffolk's detachment, which fell back to Jargeau, was overwhelmed by the French. On 12 June 1429 Suffolk surrendered, allegedly pronouncing Jeanne the bravest woman on earth and requesting the honour of dubbing her knight. Together with his younger brother Thomas, he was taken into the custody of Jean, count of Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans.

Suffolk's imprisonment brought the main period of his service in France to an end. To meet a ransom that he later claimed was as high as £20,000, he had to sell land in both France and England, and this must have persuaded him to return home, take possession of his estates, and seek a rich wife. The earl was soon set at liberty—some time between 28 February and 15 March 1430—but, as a condition of his freedom, he had to make some significant and compromising agreements. His keeper was the half-brother of two important prisoners in England, the duke of Orléans and the count of Angoulême, and it appears to have been part of the arrangement for Suffolk's release that the earl would do everything he could to obtain Angoulême's release.

The foundations of Suffolk's ascendancy, 1430–1436

Suffolk first had livery of his estates in May 1418, and the full de la Pole patrimony was in his hands long before he returned to England. His elder brother had left three daughters, but since the earldom of Suffolk was held in tail male these had posed no obstacle to William's succession. He had, in any case, been granted the three girls' marriages in 1416, but by 1422 two of them were dead, and the third joined her mother as a nun at Bruisyard, Suffolk, in May 1423. Since the widow of the last Ufford earl of Suffolk had died in 1416, and William's own mother had followed her in 1419, the whole earldom was at Suffolk's disposal within a year or two of his majority.

Even so, it was not until the end of the 1420s that Suffolk's prospects really took off. The first two Lancastrian kings had provided for the rule of East Anglia by linking together the local gentry in a network focused on the duchy of Lancaster estates in Norfolk, and managed on the king's behalf by Sir Thomas Erpingham and Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter. From this structure the de la Poles and other local magnates had been more or less excluded, but the deaths of Exeter in 1426 and Erpingham in 1428 opened up the possibility of change, and within a few years Suffolk was emerging as the new head of the crown's East Anglian affinity. His rise to power in the region was assisted both by the scope of his own estates, which were centred in Suffolk but also extended into Norfolk, and (for the time being) by the absence of any serious competition from the other major resident magnate family, the Mowbrays. Even so, it was Suffolk's simultaneous advancement at the centre, in the royal court and council, that made him the rising star in an area where royal control had been growing for several decades.

A central factor in this advancement was Suffolk's marriage to Alice Chaucer, dowager countess of Salisbury (c.1404–1475), which he seems to have contracted by 11 November 1430, soon after he returned to England. Their only son, John de la Pole, was born in 1442. Alice was a wealthy and well-connected woman, the heir to extensive lands in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and the daughter of the king's butler, Thomas Chaucer. A close relative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, and his ally on Henry VI's minority council, Chaucer was a valuable connection. It seems likely that he embraced Suffolk as a son: the earl was soon using men from Chaucer's estates in the Thames valley as his agents, and it was surely with the butler's agreement that the earl became constable and steward of Queen Catherine's honour of Wallingford in June 1434. By the time Chaucer died, at the end of that year, Suffolk had largely stepped into his shoes. Although he is often associated with the rule of East Anglia, he was more normally resident at the Chaucer caput of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, where he and his wife later built a palace and founded a hospital; like his father-in-law, Earl William was to find that the exercise of lordship in the Thames valley fitted neatly with a career in royal government conducted mainly at Windsor and Westminster.

What part Chaucer may have played in securing Suffolk's appointment to the king's council is not clear, but this was the earl's next step forward after his marriage. In the parliament of January 1431 Suffolk was part of a delegation from the council that visited the Canterbury convocation to ask for supply. On 30 November that year he was solemnly sworn a councillor. Given that Suffolk was present at the council meetings that fixed the terms and conditions of Gloucester's lieutenancy and began proceedings against the cardinal, it seems possible that Duke Humphrey was behind his appointment. Certainly, Suffolk consented to the changes in the council ordinances which preceded and assisted Gloucester's attempt to gain control of the government in February 1432, and it may have been with Gloucester's help that he acquired the custody of the duke of Orléans in the following summer. Even so, if Suffolk was the protector's friend, he was far from being his creature. When Gloucester's initiatives were decisively overturned in the spring and summer of 1433, Suffolk acquired the important post of steward of the royal household. His martial past, his service under Bedford, and his Chaucer connections must have combined to make him acceptable to almost everyone. Having returned to England in 1430, with no experience of domestic politics and a heavy ransom to pay, he was one of the leading figures in the minority regime by the middle years of the decade.

In the wake of the successes of 1430–33 Suffolk set about securing his position. He was an assiduous attender at the council, claiming to have missed only fifty meetings between 1431 and February 1436; and he was active in some of the major governmental initiatives of the time, joining Cardinal Beaufort in the abortive embassies of 1433 (Calais) and 1435 (Arras), making a detour to settle Normandy in the wake of Bedford's death, and joining the duke of York's army for a last six months of military service in the summer and autumn of 1436. The degree of influence that Suffolk had achieved by that year is shown by the lavish series of rewards that accompanied his final tour of duty: outstanding wages were settled and debts written off; he was granted a pension of 5000 livres (possibly to help pay his ransom); and, tellingly, he was promised that he would not be removed from his office ‘in the king's household and about the king's person’ (CPR, 1429–36, 514). This last was important, because it was during the summer of 1436 that the authority to govern first began to edge away from the minority council and towards the adolescent Henry VI. So far, Suffolk had risen to prominence mainly with the backing of peers and patrons; hereafter, the emerging king was to play an important role in his career.

The beginnings of hegemony, 1436–1437

The new importance accorded to the king as he grew into adulthood presented Suffolk with both opportunities and problems. As steward of the royal household, where the king lived and governed, he was well placed to influence the direction of both policy and favour. On the other hand, Henry's youthfulness (he was fourteen in 1436) and weakness of character meant that the exercise of royal authority by his ministers and intimates was always open to contest and controversy. In order to avoid this, and to realize the full potential of his own position, Suffolk had to do two things: he needed to establish a single hierarchy in the household, with himself at its head; and he had to convince the lords that such a hierarchy could satisfy their interests as effectively as the minority council had done. His work began in the household.

The period between July 1436 and November 1437, which saw the king admitted to full authority in the making of grants, also saw Suffolk established at the well-head of several different streams of royal patronage. Together with his stewardship of the royal household, the chief stewardship of the ‘north parts’ of the duchy of Lancaster, which Suffolk obtained in April 1437, and the post of justiciar of south Wales, which he had by June 1438, enabled the earl to exercise influence over a very wide range of royal patronage. There is some evidence to suggest that he used this influence to afforce his own authority in the household: for example, by rewarding its servants with posts in Wales and the duchy, and also by finding places for his local associates, such as the Hampdens of Oxfordshire and Sir Thomas Tuddenham, within the household and elsewhere.

The second major development of this period was the establishment of a modus vivendi between Suffolk and his main potential rival for power in the court, the chamberlain, Sir William Phelip. After a brief tussle in the early months of 1437 the two men seem to have reached an accommodation: Suffolk—richer, better connected, and higher in blood—was to have precedence both centrally and in East Anglia (where Phelip's Lancastrian connections had made him a plausible candidate for lordship); while the chamberlain's interests were to be well represented (not least by his appointment to the chief stewardship of the ‘south parts’ of the duchy in May 1437). This was a formula that was to be repeated many times over in the ensuing years, as other potentially independent powers in the household—James Fiennes, Sir Ralph Boteler, Sir John Beauchamp of Powick, Sir John Stanley—set their terms for the acceptance of Suffolk's leadership. Even so, from 1437 Suffolk had the advantage of priority: once he was established, there was almost certainly more to gain from working with him (which generally, of course, meant working under him) than from challenging his leadership. He was ever attentive to the interests of his supporters; and, as later became clear, the disruption of his hegemony was in the interests of no one.

The consolidation of supremacy, 1438–1445

In the wider world beyond the household Suffolk moved slowly and skilfully. Both he and Phelip were members of the council, as well as of the royal household, and they were in no hurry to transfer power from one place to the other until the rest of the nobility were ready to move with them. Suffolk was once again among the most active attenders at the council in the later 1430s and seems to have been closely associated with Cardinal Beaufort, who generally had the upper hand over policy. As it became more important to draw Henry VI into the council's activities, during 1438 and 1439, Suffolk acted as the principal link between the king and his advisers, bearing authority from one and counsel from the other. It was a powerful position, but only if the earl preserved the sense among the lords that he would not use it improperly. He did this partly by using his influence over royal favour and royal justice to ensure that those who had been dominant in the 1420s and early 1430s retained their importance into the later 1430s and 1440s, and partly by avoiding radical departures in either the distribution of authority or the development of policy. As far as authority is concerned, it is clear that the earl did not make waves: instead, he took discreet advantage of whatever circumstances permitted.

Suffolk's first opportunity came when the duke of Gloucester launched the last of his many assaults on Cardinal Beaufort's control of affairs in the parliament of 1439–40. Suffolk's actions are poorly documented, but it seems likely that he resolved to exploit Beaufort's discomfiture to advance his own political interests. First of all, he attempted to take control of the great tracts of the duchy of Lancaster which were in the hands of the cardinal and other feoffees. On this occasion, the attempt failed, but the ultimate destination of these lands, which were re-enfeoffed between 1443 and 1445, reveals what lay behind the move. Towards the end of 1439 the first steps were taken in what was to be the most famous and enduring project of Henry VI's reign: the foundation of royal colleges at Eton and Cambridge. Suffolk played a leading part in every aspect of the scheme, from its financing and planning through to the actual building of the colleges and the devising of their statutes; tellingly, it was the earl and not the king who laid the first stone of King's College chapel. The reasons for Suffolk's interest are not hard to find. On the one hand, it provided a means to express and demonstrate the new personal authority of the king, which was important because it justified the exercise of power from within the household. On the other hand, the foundations meant the creation of a kind of guild among the upper echelons of the court, a means of binding together leading courtiers, clerks, and bishops in a spiritual enterprise linked closely to the king's personal assumption of rule.

In the event, this personal rule was rather slow to take hold, but the measures taken during the brief period of independent royal rule between 1439 and 1441—the release of Orléans in 1440, in particular—were absolutely of a piece with those pursued under Beaufort's influence in the later 1430s, and there were no significant changes in the personnel of government. Continuity was the order of the day in the late 1430s and early 1440s, and Suffolk seems to have accepted this as readily as his peers. In the summer of 1441 Beaufort and the council regained a measure of political control, but—owing to the confidence he must have built up among the lords and the continuing need to incorporate the manifestly adult king in the government—Suffolk's rise to supremacy was barely halted. The earl was the leading noble attender at the council during 1441–3 and once again played the important role of bridging the gap between conciliar policy and royal authority. Since attempts to negotiate a marriage for the maturing king bulked so large in the politics of these years, the significance of this role was growing ever greater; and it was surely Suffolk's success in contracting a marriage alliance with the house of Anjou in 1444–5 that permitted the inauguration of full royal rule from a court now operating under his direction. When the French ambassadors arrived to settle the desired peace terms in July 1445, they found Henry VI apparently in full control of affairs, a splendid coterie of magnates around him, and Suffolk, promoted to marquess on 14 September 1444, highest in importance. De la Pole had risen to the top and he was to stay there for the following four years, but the position he had obtained was something very different from the absolute and royally sponsored power traditionally ascribed to him.

Suffolk and foreign policy, 1433–1449

One of the most controversial features of Suffolk's career was his involvement in Anglo-French diplomacy during the mid- and late 1440s. Commonly seen as the architect of a narrowly supported and ill-conceived policy of peace at any price, Suffolk did indeed play a prominent role in the numerous initiatives to obtain a measure of peace in France that arose during the 1430s and 1440s, but there is no reason to assume that, as C. L. Kingsford once suggested, ‘in his peace policy Suffolk was consistent throughout’ (Kingsford, ‘Policy and fall of Suffolk’, 149). In fact the overall aim of Suffolk's diplomacy may have been to build support for the Lancastrians among leading French magnates, a policy pursued by Bedford and Henry V before him.

During his period as gaoler of the duke of Orléans (1432–6) the earl is supposed to have been converted to the cause of peace by his captive, but the interest in a general settlement that he professed during a meeting held in 1433 between the duke and some Burgundian ambassadors was quite conventional. Suffolk took Orléans to Calais later that year, for a conference with other French princes that never took place, but then and on his next embassy (to Arras, in 1435) he was working in tandem with Cardinal Beaufort and the dominant faction in the council: there is no reason to see him as the maker of policy, let alone the maker of unacceptable policy. Nor is there any reason to see him as a pacifist: the line taken by the English delegation at Arras was so uncompromising that no peace could be concluded, and in 1436 Suffolk had once again been a participant in the war. In 1437 he agreed to serve on another embassy, though there is no evidence that it actually took place, and in the next major attempt to negotiate peace with the French, the conference at Oye in May 1439, he played no part. Suffolk's role in the decision to release Orléans in 1440 is unknown, but it is worth noting that he was not mentioned in Gloucester's various invectives against the measure. Throughout the 1430s and early 1440s Suffolk's part in the formation of policy towards France was only such as befitted his place in the regime: there is no evidence that he had any distinctive agenda.

In many ways the story is the same for the later 1440s, when Suffolk was more clearly the leading figure in the planning and conduct of English diplomacy. Following the failure of more bellicose policies in 1441–3, the earl was instrumental in reopening negotiations with the French and paving the way for the major embassy that he himself led to Tours in the spring of 1444. In a series of meetings with the French king and the leading members of the house of Anjou, Suffolk contracted a short truce with France on 20 May 1444 and, four days later, a marriage between Henry VI and Margaret, daughter of Duke René. In all probability he also made a number of proposals intended to strengthen the English diplomatic position by building an alliance with the Angevins and by encouraging a longer truce with Charles VII; these were a temporary suspension of the English title to the French throne, and a suggestion that English claims and lands in Maine and Anjou might be ceded to Margaret's family. The following November Suffolk went back to France to collect the new queen and escort her to England. In April 1445 he returned home, and on 4 June he received the rapturous thanks of the duke of Gloucester and the other lords and commons in parliament.

In all this Suffolk was working well within the established frameworks of English policy, and—at least from 1445—with the full knowledge of other leading politicians. His attempt to refuse a place in the embassy of 1444, on the grounds that he had many contacts in France, and that there was already popular suspicion about his motives, should not be read as the sign of a guilty conscience; rather, it was an elaborate attempt to secure the lords' recognition that responsibility for what he did on royal orders must lie with the king. His declaration of 1447, that he had done nothing at Tours beyond the terms of his commission—a declaration endorsed by several lords, including York and Cromwell—must be seen in a similar light: the fact that rumours circulated about the way in which the risky and unsuccessful policy of the later 1440s had come to be conceived and executed is testimony to Henry's insufficiency, not to Suffolk's softness or slipperiness. In the end, of course, the English found that they had to hand over Maine not to the Angevins, but to Charles VII—and that as a condition merely for keeping the truce in being; but, in trying to co-ordinate the royal response to French initiatives, Suffolk acted as part of a group. As he later pointed out, ‘so grete thinges coude not be doon nor broughte aboute by hymself alone, onlesse that other persones had doon her parte and be pryvy therto aswell as he’ (RotP, 5.182). Nobody knew how best to preserve the residue of Henry V's conquests, and Suffolk's approach seems to have been no different from anyone else's. This was demonstrated by his involvement in the more aggressive scheme to assert English interests in Brittany, which culminated in the coup at Fougères in the summer of 1449. This policy also failed, but the key to understanding Suffolk's role is to see him not as the friend of peace, nor yet of war, but (as he himself insisted) as the true servant of Lancastrian interests, and so the man most obliged, by his pre-eminence in the court of the useless king, to take responsibility for pursuing them.

Suffolk's regime, 1445–1449

The paradox at the heart of Henry VI's government in the mid- and late 1440s lay in the fact that, although the king was nominally adult and responsible for policy, everybody knew, or suspected, that this was a fiction. As a result, it was continually necessary for Suffolk, as manager of the regime, to gather support from leading men and to face down allegations that he, and others at Henry's side in the household, were running affairs in their own interests. The marquess certainly seems to have been aware of the realities of his position. At least until 1448 efforts were made to keep the magnates involved in decision making, and Suffolk was almost certainly a participant in the various attempts to limit the king's open-handedness in the interests of financial stability. The real problem facing him was that the king's freedom to distribute favours to all comers was both the corollary of royal authority and, in a sense, a guarantee of the regime's representativeness. Applications for royal grace could not easily be denied, and this was central to the collapse of the regime's legitimacy in the crisis of 1449–50.

Suffolk himself, of course, was one of the greatest beneficiaries of royal patronage, and this has done more than anything else to blacken his reputation. The grants he received fell into two main groups. First, there were those that helped to strengthen his position within the governing establishment. Into this category, perhaps, fell the offices of justice of Chester and north Wales (1440), chamberlain of England (1447), admiral of England during the duke of Exeter's minority (1447), head of the staple (1448), and chief steward of those parts of the duchy of Lancaster held in feoffment for the royal colleges (1448): these offices gave Suffolk authority in, or at least an entrée into, the many spheres where a proper king would have been active; someone had to exercise authority on Henry VI's behalf. In a like way, Suffolk's acquisition of the lordship of Guînes (made under highly secret conditions in February 1441) may have helped the government to wrest Calais from the duke of Gloucester; while his appointment some time before 1445 as great steward of England, and his promotion within the peerage, must have helped him to maintain his status as other peers ascended all around him. Suffolk was no altruist: he must have sought and valued the offices and honours he achieved, but his manufactured ascendancy nevertheless filled a political vacuum. His function in the years of Henry's personal rule was to supply the single direction that political society required: so it was that many others, besides Suffolk himself, benefited from his ascendancy.

Even so, it is clear that not all of the favours Suffolk received can be related to the necessities of his position. If his reversion of Gloucester's earldom of Pembroke (1443) might have been intended to afforce the regime's position in Wales, the wardships of the heiresses of Beaufort (1444) and Beauchamp (1446) seem merely to have served the dynastic interests of the house of de la Pole. The commons of the parliament of 1449–50 accused Suffolk of intending to marry his son to Lady Margaret Beaufort and to place the crown upon his head, using the Beaufort claim as justification. While such an extravagantly disloyal scheme seems unlikely, it is clear that Suffolk was not embarrassed either to fish for the highest rewards available or to help himself to portions of the royal estate (the earldom of Pembroke was to be held in tail male, for example). His acquisitiveness was, to say the least, indiscreet and it provided the regime's critics in the country with powerful ammunition when trouble began in the later 1440s.

Tensions and difficulties, 1447–1449

Suffolk first began to run into political difficulties in the wake of the parliament held at Bury St Edmunds in February 1447. The assembly had gathered at a tense moment: negotiations with the French had reached an impasse, and some sort of attack on government policy seems to have been anticipated from the duke of Gloucester. Under orders that can only have come from Suffolk and his colleagues, Duke Humphrey had been arrested on charges of treason, only to die in suspicious circumstances a few days later. Public opinion seems to have held Suffolk responsible for both the duke's downfall and his death, and it is from this moment, according to several chroniclers, that murmurings against the king's advisers began to spread among the people. Suffolk could not have moved against Gloucester without the support of the lords, many of whom profited directly (as Suffolk did himself) from the old duke's demise, but this support was not unshakeable. As the diplomatic and financial situation deteriorated further in 1448, the more important lords seem to have distanced themselves from the regime, leaving Suffolk (who was promoted to duke on 2 June 1448) and the officers and men of the household looking exactly like the curial clique about whom the government's critics were beginning to complain. As the renewal of war became first a threat and then, in 1449, a reality, these men struggled to raise the necessary funds and men to fight it effectively. Suffolk himself lent large sums (as much as £2773 in the second half of 1449 alone), but the attitude of MPs was unsympathetic. The first parliament of 1449 countered requests for taxation with demands for a resumption of royal gifts; the second went much further, demanding action against the king's advisers and dragging its feet on all other business. To those outside the inner circle of power it seemed that Henry's ministers had brought their troubles on themselves. By late 1449 Normandy was practically lost, the government was bankrupt, and a coherent explanation of these disasters—one which put the blame mainly on the shoulders of Suffolk—was being developed by MPs and other exponents of public opinion.

A final cause of trouble for the duke was the mounting evidence of disorder and injustice in the localities, and particularly in those areas where Suffolk and other courtiers were dominant. The commons of 1449–50 presented Suffolk as the grand co-ordinator of a group of disorderly and opportunistic men drawn from Henry VI's household, but those historians who have followed them in this have overlooked the fact that anyone with access to the king in the later 1440s was able to obtain authority for his actions. On the whole Suffolk seems to have spent more time trying to repair the damage caused by the interventions of minor household men than in inspiring their activities. If he had sometimes to excuse what they had done (as in sponsoring a pardon for the disgraceful William Tailboys, for example), this was either to meet the demands of other courtiers (Viscount Beaumont in this case), or to try to retain some purchase over men who were learning that they could act for themselves. If, meanwhile, there was a growing number of curial sheriffs in the later 1440s, this may have been because few other gentlemen could be persuaded to accept the office now that the crown estate had been so much depleted by royal acts of grace: there is no reason to believe that Suffolk, or anyone else, was constructing a network of courtiers for the programmatic exploitation of the realm.

In East Anglia, where the evidence of the Paston letters has tended to dominate historical accounts, it has been widely concluded that Suffolk, aided by John Heydon, Thomas Tuddenham, and a host of courtiers, used his power at the centre to conduct a reign of terror at the expense of the region's rightful lord, John (VI) Mowbray, duke of Norfolk. Recent research has shown, however, that if anyone had the right to rule the region, it was Suffolk himself in his triple role as king's chief minister, local agent of the duchy of Lancaster connection, and lord of the de la Pole–Ufford patrimony. The troubles of the 1440s arose in large part because Norfolk was determined to force his way in and because Suffolk, with responsibilities elsewhere and a complex position to maintain, took the simplest course and tried to keep him out. Certainly, Suffolk's handling of the situation left something to be desired, but he was far from being the gangster figure of the Pastons' imagination. Norfolk himself and, above all, the supine king must take much of the responsibility for the region's problems; while the chaos of the later 1440s—with Thomas Daniel, Robert Hungerford, Lord Moleyns, and others marauding about East Anglia seizing vulnerable property—is symptomatic of the kind of confusion happening in other areas, where minor men with access to the king were defying Suffolk's carefully constructed regime and taking the law into their own hands. Suffolk's probity and effectiveness as a territorial lord may be better demonstrated by the rapid recovery of de la Pole authority in East Anglia once the convulsions of 1447–51 had died down, or by the calmer situation that prevailed in the Thames valley—perhaps the main centre of Suffolk's lordship—throughout the reign.

Downfall, 1449–1450

By November 1449, when another angry parliament gathered at Westminster, Suffolk's tottering regime had more or less collapsed. Since September a loosely organized council of lords seems to have taken control of government, and, while Suffolk was an important participant, it seems likely that he was no longer the director of affairs. The new year brought disturbances in London, Kent, and Portsmouth, where a mob of soldiers murdered the keeper of the privy seal, Bishop Adam Moleyns, and these events may have convinced the lords—and possibly Suffolk himself—that the government would have to respond to criticisms which, as the duke himself acknowledged, ran ‘almost in every commons mouth’ (RotP, 5.176). On 22 January 1450 Suffolk appeared before the king in parliament to protest his loyalty, and to challenge his critics to make formal accusations against him so that he could defend himself. His declaration emphasized his long service in both France and England, the many losses he had sustained in the war, and his great inheritance, which he was unlikely to have risked ‘for a Frensh mannes promisse’. It was a moving performance, but predictably it unleashed allegations of treason from the commons, and, on 28 January, the king and the lords reluctantly agreed to imprison Suffolk in the Tower of London.

The commons' charges emerged in detail in two batches: eight counts of treason on 7 February, and eighteen lesser offences on 9 March. Suffolk's diplomatic efforts were presented as plotting with his French allies; his activities in government became the most outrageous sequence of corruptions, peculations, and maintenances imaginable. The curious conditions that had created and surrounded the duke's hegemony undeniably provided the commons with plenty of material for their accusations: Suffolk did have friends and connections in France; he had been ‘pryviest of [Henry's] counseill’ when the disastrous policies of the 1440s were put into effect; he had, for example, helped himself to the earldom of Pembroke, procured a pardon for Tailboys, and, in all probability, influenced the appointments of sheriffs; he had (until recently) been able to affect the distribution of royal patronage. Even so, the picture of diabolic malignity conjured by the duke's accusers carries no conviction whatsoever, and Suffolk, who finally appeared before king and lords to answer the charges against him on 13 March, was able to dismiss the commons' more extravagant assertions with a flat denial. Central to his defence was the substantially true claim that he had consistently acted with the knowledge, support, and assistance of others; this counted for a lot in the desperate political situation of 1450. The lords were unable to deny the point, though they hardly wished to acknowledge it, or, indeed, to explore the matter further. This must explain the slow progress of the proceedings against the duke (now halted for a further four days) and also the solution which emerged on 17 March. In return for submitting himself to the king's ‘rule and governaunce’ (RotP, 5.183), and abandoning his right to a trial by his peers, in which all manner of damaging details about the operation of royal government under Henry VI were likely to become public, Suffolk was formally exonerated by the king and sentenced to five years' banishment, to begin on 1 May 1450.

Death and judgment

While this award was avowedly made at ‘the kynges owne demeanance and rule’, it was clearly the result that the lords themselves would have sought. Nothing was to be gained by staging trials of powerful magnates at the behest of the populace. The duke was escorted away from Westminster by night on 19 March, with a party of outraged Londoners in hot pursuit. He spent the ensuing six weeks at his manor of East Thorp, in Suffolk, while news of his release spread and public anger mounted. As the final session of the parliament of 1449–50 opened at Leicester on 29 April, with calls for the execution of Suffolk and other so-called ‘traitors’, the duke himself prepared to take ship for the Low Countries. Two days later his little fleet was intercepted by a privateering vessel called the Nicholas of the Tower. Suffolk was taken prisoner by its crew, subjected to a mock trial, and, in the name of the ‘community of the realm’, beheaded as a traitor on 2 May 1450. He was buried at Wingfield in Suffolk, probably in June following. Despite the best efforts of their rulers, and notwithstanding the duke's persuasive claim to have acted truly towards both king and people, the commons of England had begun to obtain their justice: Suffolk's murder was the first act in a summer of mayhem that was to change the face of English politics forever.

By his contemporaries the duke of Suffolk was little mourned, and to most historians he has appeared both corrupt and inept, being generally presented in terms not far removed from the image of arrogant ambition displayed in the young Shakespeare's Henry VI parts 1 and 2—the former play concludes with Suffolk, having successfully wooed Margaret of Anjou in King Henry's name, declaring that ‘I will rule both her, the king and realm’ (Henry VI, V.v). Yet C. L. Kingsford found Suffolk ‘perhaps at once the most tragic and the most pathetic figure in the history of fifteenth-century England’ (Kingsford, ‘Policy and fall of Suffolk’, 146), and a closer look at his career reveals a more complex picture than traditional accounts have allowed. Suffolk was no more blind to his own advantage than any of his contemporaries, but—like his grandfather, the first earl, whose career was strikingly similar—he was also something of a statesman, doing his best for king and realm in very difficult circumstances. Service to the crown was the keynote of his career, as it had been for other Lancastrian noblemen: the difficulty facing Suffolk was that service to Henry VI inevitably meant the usurpation of the king's unexercised authority. How eagerly the duke sought the brief supremacy he achieved will never be known, but it is worth noting that he worked hard at his self-appointed role, that his pre-eminence made a kind of government possible for a time, and that he paid a heavy price for it.

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